Preston Smith's Corner

What is lean product development and should we be using it?

September 2004 Quick Tip

Lean product development stems from lean manufacturing, which in turn, is largely a repackaging of the Toyota Production System (TPS). As many companies have adopted lean manufacturing, they have sought to make similar transformations upstream in their new products entering the factory.

Although some of lean manufacturing translates to product development, much of it can cause problems in translation. The classic in making the translation is Don Reinertsen’s Managing the Design Factory. Don succeeds by carefully selecting the techniques that do translate well and by translating them at a high level. For instance, pull systems, small batches, and queueing theory lend valuable insight to effective product development.

Other techniques can get you into trouble. The core practice of lean manufacturing, for instance, is eliminating waste. Sometimes you have to look carefully, even in the factory, to identify waste. Shingo, one of the leaders of the TPS, identified seven types of waste, such as correction, inventory, and waiting. Correction includes rework, which is undesirable in the factory.

In product development, rework also would seem to be waste. Our mantra is “do it right the first time.” However, the essence of innovation is re-trying things until they work. If you drive out rework, you will have no innovation. Consequently, the key in re-trying things is to do it efficiently and learn as much from each failure as possible, not to eliminate the failures.

Probably the most useful recent book on lean development is Poppendieck’s Lean Software Development, although you may have to translate some from software to hardware.

(c) Copyright 2013 Preston G. Smith. All Rights Reserved.

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